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Green guardians great saviours

Thick vegetation may have helped save thousands of lives when the killer tsunami struck, writes Vijay Soni.
PTI | By Vijay Soni (HindustanTimes.com), New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 09, 2005 03:22 AM IST

Green guardians may have helped save thousands of lives when the killer tsunami struck, say scientists.

"Deaths were highest in regions denuded of greenery. Tamil Nadu, Car Nicobar and Pondicherry, which have the highest number of casualties, had little marine ecosystem left on its coasts," says Biswanath Dash, an expert who prepared World Bank's 2004 Disaster Preparedness report for India.

"There seems to be no adequate law regulating human habitations near the sea. The Coastal Zone Regulation, which forbids commercial construction within 500 metres of the beaches, is limited only to tourist areas," says Dash.
 
By contrast, the Andaman tribes were untouched by the killer waves, largely because of thick vegetation. Trees not only stopped people from being washed away, but also blunted the ferocity of the waves that would otherwise have claimed many more lives.

Likewise, people living at Pichavaram and Muthupet in Tamil Nadu coastal areas were unharmed by tsunami because of its thick mangrove trees. With 75% of its land under forest, including 10% marine ecosystem, Andaman and Nicobar too were able to thwart tsunami's intensity to a larger extent.

Pondicherry, having lost much of its rich tropical evergreen forests, once known to blunt cyclones with its thick leaves and broad trunks had to bear the brunt of the killer tsunami. So was the case with other areas of Tamil Nadu like Nagapattinam and Cuddalore. "Natural vegetation acts as a great buffer between men and sea during such disasters," says Biswanath Dash.

According to the Oceans and Coast programme expert at World Wildlife Fund's India office, Swayamprabha Das, the disappearance of mangrove trees and coral reefs due to rampant commercialisation may have cost the local population dear.

"Mangrove trees and corals have the capacity to withstand water pressure and to actually reduce its speed. Some coastal trees can bend up to 90 degrees and are excellent barriers to cyclones and other forces of nature. They don't get uprooted easily and are resistant to saline water, " she says.

Although life is limping back to normal in most areas hit by the quake, a lot of the damages it caused may take a long time to heal. For example, coastal land has been rendered virtually infertile.

"As a result of increased salinity and physical destruction of irrigation system, it could take years for the affected areas to regain their fertility," says Gopi Ghosh, crop exert at UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in India.

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